The Physics of the Future (2011), By Michio Kaku


This is both a conniving and innocent book, reading something like an old Sears catalog in it’s descriptive listing of possibly coming technological innovations by department, e.g., housewares, medical, space travel, AI, nanotechnology, wealth, energy, planetary civilizations and so forth, divided into Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter releases.

It’s largely up to you to map out an idea of how the different departments might combine.

Kaku’s advocacy has the dull innocence of pop selling principles and hence the usual blatant, boring conniving that implements them: don’t talk much about human nature; have editors prune out all three-syllable words from the text; ditto Incorrect (i.e., possibly offensive) ones; assume all innovations are better than not; when in doubt, make outlandish predictions (we’ll probably come in contact with an extraterrestrial civilization before 2100) and preferably with reference to Hollywood science fiction ATM movies with colons in their titles; anoint scientists as trustworthy (should sometimes¬† be “rustworthy”) prognosticators and interview as many well-known ones as you can (“Freeman Dyson and I had lunch…”); and above all, assume that a future world in which we are to be wired up to just about every imaginable cognitive distraction and from the lens of our glasses to the tips of our shoes and at least from the moment we swing our legs over the edge of the bed in the morning until we tuck them in at night, is all to the good. Kaku’s idea of a serious future contingency is the “singularity” which Vinge, Kurzweil et al. say will elevate machines far more intelligent than are we and enclose us in exhibit cases in some future museum of natural history. But you get the sense that Kaku, who seems not much of a risk-taker, isn’t really worried about the singularity. Another academic “worry” for Kaku is the dread day when nanotechnology renders Moore’s Law obsolete and Capitalism faces a crisis. (Sorry to alarm you.)

We can expect ubiquitous computing but through chips (munks, not big bad wolves) hiding all around little us as we’re led through that ‘hood; few doctors; no-tubes colonoscopies (yes!); intelligent agents just about everywhere in our surround; conscious robots (if perhaps having not human but “silicon consciousness”) by 2100; “augmented reality” (a blend of virtual and real); “the replicator” (a molecular assembler capable of creating “anything”). And, well, a lot more developments that Hollywood’s futuristic films have foretold.

Kaku is the present version of Dr. Science. His audience is the Virtual Generation. (Its disillusionment is starting to build on many fronts even as we speak, and I’m betting Kaku is quietly desperate about it, along with not a few others.) All will be well, says Kaku, “unless we succumb to the forces of chaos and folly.” Nor should we forget about the “Cave Man Principle” (“or Cave Woman”): we haven’t changed much in 100,000 years. Keep that in mind, he says. Terrific point. But he doesn’t say much more about it.

He might well have talked some about that old “hardwired” human thirst for the direct experience of reality. For instance, might there be behavioral ironies if we experience too much “augmented reality”? Might it be boring to undertake the travels and travails of a “planetary civilization”? Now there’s a case where first class or at least business class would be greatly preferable, given distances and all.

The portions on future military and medical technology (the former far too brief in the forecasting) and on travel and energy in the “magnetic era” are informative and stimulating.

But all and all, Kaku unwittingly makes you see that it’s good that of late we have McEwan’s Solar, Carr’s The Shallows, Morozov’s The Net Delusion, and McLean and Nocera’s All The Devils Are Here. And, from an earlier time, Brave New World.

And of course a lot more of that ilk.

In his narrative it’s clear that Kaku and irony are strangers. Ditto dark history. (This condition is habitual, you just know, for hosts of popular science shows [“Good evening. By the end of this century we will be like Greek gods….”].) The framed Don’t-Mentions hang on a wall of the studio at eye level.

And: For reasons that perhaps bear some contemplation, you might find yourself recalling Churchill (!) as you read Kaku’s breathless concoction (though I’d skip Kaku and just read one of Winston’s speeches). I think it has to do with muddling through.

Even reading this latter-day Sears catalog, it’s manifest we’re certainly going to be doing a lot of that, and hopefully well.